Professor Nicholas Shea

Contact details

Name:
Professor Nicholas Shea
Qualifications:
B.A.; Ph.D.
Position:
Professor of Philosophy
Institute:
Institute of Philosophy
Location:
Institute of Philosophy, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Phone:
020 7862 8824
Email address:
Nicholas.Shea@sas.ac.uk
Website:
http://www.nicholasshea.co.uk/

Research Summary and Profile

Research interests:
Philosophy
Summary of research interests and expertise:

Research interests: 

  • Philosophy of psychology 
  • Philosophy of cognitive science
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Theories of representational content
  • Decision-making
  • Inheritance systems
  • Cognitive science
  • Cognitive neuroscience

 

 

Publication Details

Related publications/articles:

Date Details
01-Oct-2020 Representation in Cognitive Science (paperback)

Monographs

Shea. N., Representation in Cognitive Science (Oxford University Press) . Winner of the 2020 Lakatos Prize

19-May-2020 Representation in Cognitive Science: Replies

Journal articles

Mind & Language, 35(3), pp.402-412. doi.org/10.1111/mila.12285

01-May-2020 Concept-Metacognition

Journal articles

Shea, N. (2020), ‘Concept-Metacognition’, Mind & Language, 35(5), pp. 565-582. doi: 10.1111/mila.12235

22-Apr-2020 Metacognitive Development and Conceptual Change in Children

Journal articles

Smortchkova, J. and Shea N. (2020), ‘Metacognitive Development and Conceptual Change in Children’, Review of Philosophy and Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00477-7

24-Mar-2020 Knowing Ourselves Together: The Cultural Origins of Metacognition

Journal articles

Cecilia Heyes, Dan Bang, Nicholas Shea, Christopher D. Frith, and Stephen M. Fleming (2020), ‘Knowing Ourselves Together: The Cultural Origins of Metacognition’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(5), pp. 349-362. doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.02.007

01-Nov-2018 Functionalist Interrelations Amongst Human Psychological States Inter Se, ditto for Martians

Journal articles

Shea, N. (2020) ‘Functionalist Interrelations Among Human Psychological States Inter Se, ditto for Martians’, in Smortchkova, J., Do??ga, K., Schlicht, T. (eds.) What Are Mental Representations? (Oxford: OUP), pp. 242-253.

27-Sep-2018 Representation in Cognitive Science

Monographs

 Our thoughts are meaningful. We think about things in the outside world; how can that be so? This is one of the deepest questions in contemporary philosophy. Ever since the 'cognitive revolution', states with meaning-mental representations-have been the key explanatory construct of the cognitive sciences. But there is still no widely accepted theory of how mental representations get their meaning. Powerful new methods in cognitive neuroscience can now reveal information processing in the brain in unprecedented detail. They show how the brain performs complex calculations on neural representations.

Drawing on this cutting-edge research, Nicholas Shea uses a series of case studies from the cognitive sciences to develop a naturalistic account of the nature of mental representation. His approach is distinctive in focusing firmly on the 'subpersonal' representations that pervade so much of cognitive science. The diversity and depth of the case studies, illustrated by numerous figures, make this book unlike any previous treatment. It is important reading for philosophers of psychology and philosophers of mind, and of considerable interest to researchers throughout the cognitive sciences.

 

Functionalist Interrelations Amongst Human Psychological States Inter Se, ditto for Martians

Chapters

In Smortchkova, J., Dolega, K., Schlicht, T. (eds.) What Are Mental Representations? (Oxford: OUP), to be published in 2019

Abstract: One job for theories of mental representation is to distinguish between different kinds of mental representation: beliefs, desires, intentions, perceptual states, etc. What makes a mental state a belief that p rather than a desire that p or a visual representation that p? Functionalism is a leading approach for doing so: for individuating mental states.
Functionalism is designed to allow that psychological states can be multiply realized. Mark Sprevak has argued that, for a functionalist account of psychological states to apply to creatures that are organised in a very different way to humans (call them Martians), the way a psychological state is functionally individuated has to be relatively coarse-grained (Sprevak 2009). Psychological research might show that human beliefs are directly available to consciousness, that they are formed as the result of deliberate judgement, and so on, but theorists would be precluded from including these roles in their account of belief, if Sprevak is right.
The argument for coarse-grained individuation fails if we distinguish functionalism about what it takes to be a psychological state in general from functionalism about a particular state type such as belief. Functionalism individuates a psychological state like believing that p partly by reference to its relations to other psychological states: desiring that p, perceiving that p, intending that p, etc. Functionalist motivations do indeed suggest that Martians with a functional organisation and physical substrate quite unlike humans could have psychological states, but not that they should have states with the interrelated collection of functional roles to count as beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. Thus, theorists are not precluded from including functional relations to consciousness or deliberate judgement in their account of (human) belief, consistent with allowing that Martians would have their own collection of functionally interrelated psychological states.
Sprevak’s coarse-grained functionalism implies an implausibly liberal form of extended cognition. The point about functional interrelations allows us to avoid that conclusion without jettisoning functionalism (as Sprevak suggests we should): records in a human notebook may not enter into the right interrelations with other human psychological states to count as beliefs; nor do they enter into any interrelations with Martian psychological states. Functionalism can therefore allow that Martians have psychological states while holding that few if any of the beliefs we humans have are, as a matter of fact, extended.
 

 

Concept Metacognition

Journal articles

Abstract: Concepts are our tools for thinking. They enable us to engage in explicit reasoning about things in the world. Like physical tools, they can be more or less good, given the ways we use them – more or less dependable for categorisation, learning, induction, action-planning, and so on. Do concept users appreciate, explicitly or implicitly, that concepts vary in dependability? Do they feel that some concepts are in some way defective? If so, we metacognize our concepts. One example that has been studied is a person’s judgement about how well they have learnt a new category. There are many other forms that concept-metacognition could take. This paper offers a preliminary taxonomy of different forms of metacognition directed at concepts. It suggests that concept-metacognition may affect the way one concept from a range of candidates is selected for use, and the way a concept is relied on in reasoning. Concept-metacognition may also play a pivotal role in the social process of constructing concepts, in replacing the old and constructing the new tools for thinking.

(Pre-print)

The Global Workspace Needs Metacognition

Journal articles

Shea, N. & C. D. Frith (2019), ‘The Global Workspace Needs Metacognition’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23(7), pp. 560-571. doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.04.007

Publications available on SAS-space:

Date Details
Jan-2018 Learning Rapidly about the Relevance of Visual Cues Requires Conscious Awareness

PeerReviewed

Humans have been shown capable of performing many cognitive tasks using information of which they are not consciously aware. This raises questions about what role consciousness actually plays in cognition. Here, we explored whether participants can learn cue-target contingencies in an attentional learning task when the cues were presented below the level of conscious awareness, and how this differs from learning about conscious cues. Participants’ manual (Experiment 1) and saccadic (Experiment 2) response speeds were influenced by both conscious and unconscious cues. However, participants were only able to adapt to reversals of the cue-target contingencies (Experiment 1) or changes in the reliability of the cues (Experiment 2) when consciously aware of the cues. Therefore, although visual cues can be processed unconsciously, learning about cues over a few trials requires conscious awareness of them. Finally, we discuss implications for cognitive theories of consciousness.

Jun-2017 Content in Simple Signalling Systems

PeerReviewed

Our understanding of communication and its evolution has advanced significantly through the study of simple models involving interacting senders and receivers of signals. Many theorists have thought that the resources of mathematical information theory are all that are needed to capture the meaning or content that is being communicated in these systems. However, the way theorists routinely talk about the models implicitly draws on a conception of content that is richer than bare informational content, especially in contexts where false content is important. This article shows that this concept can be made precise by defining a notion of functional content that captures the degree to which different states of the world are involved in stabilizing senders’ and receivers’ use of a signal at equilibrium. A series of case studies is used to contrast functional content with informational content, and to illustrate the explanatory role and limitations of this definition of functional content.

Jun-2018 Metacognition and Abstract Concepts

PeerReviewed

The problem of how concepts can refer to or be about the non‐mental world is particularly puzzling for abstract concepts. There is growing evidence that many characteristics beyond the perceptual are involved in grounding different kinds of abstract concept. A resource that has been suggested, but little explored, is introspection. This paper develops that suggestion by focusing specifically on metacognition—on the thoughts and feelings that thinkers have about a concept. One example of metacognition about concepts is the judgement that we should defer to others in how a given concept is used. Another example is our internal assessment of which concepts are dependable and useful, and which less so. Metacognition of this kind may be especially important for grounding abstract concepts.

Jan-2019 Concept-Metacognition

PeerReviewed

Concepts are our tools for thinking. They enable us to engage in explicit reasoning about things in the world. Like physical tools, they can be more or less good, given the ways we use them – more or less dependable for categorisation, learning, induction, action-planning, and so on. Do concept users appreciate, explicitly or implicitly, that concepts vary in dependability? Do they feel that some concepts are in some way defective? If so, we metacognize our concepts. One example that has been studied is a person’s judgement about how well they have learnt a new category. There are many other forms that concept-metacognition could take. This paper offers a preliminary taxonomy of different forms of metacognition directed at concepts. It suggests that concept-metacognition may affect the way one concept from a range of candidates is selected for use, and the way a concept is relied on in reasoning. Concept-metacognition may also play a pivotal role in the social process of constructing concepts, in replacing the old and constructing the new tools for thinking.

Dec-2018 Functionalist Interrelations Amongst Human Psychological States Inter Se, ditto for Martians

NonPeerReviewed

One job for theories of mental representation is to distinguish between different kinds of mental representation: beliefs, desires, intentions, perceptual states, etc. What makes a mental state a belief that p rather than a desire that p or a visual representation that p? Functionalism is a leading approach for doing so: for individuating mental states. Functionalism is designed to allow that psychological states can be multiply realized. Mark Sprevak has argued that, for a functionalist account of psychological states to apply to creatures that are organised in a very different way to humans (call them Martians), the way a psychological state is functionally individuated has to be relatively coarse-grained (Sprevak 2009). Psychological research might show that human beliefs are directly available to consciousness, that they are formed as the result of deliberate judgement, and so on, but theorists would be precluded from including these roles in their account of belief, if Sprevak is right. The argument for coarse-grained individuation fails if we distinguish functionalism about what it takes to be a psychological state in general from functionalism about a particular state type such as belief. Functionalism individuates a psychological state like believing that p partly by reference to its relations to other psychological states: desiring that p, perceiving that p, intending that p, etc. Functionalist motivations do indeed suggest that Martians with a functional organisation and physical substrate quite unlike humans could have psychological states, but not that they should have states with the interrelated collection of functional roles to count as beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. Thus, theorists are not precluded from including functional relations to consciousness or deliberate judgement in their account of (human) belief, consistent with allowing that Martians would have their own collection of functionally interrelated psychological states. Sprevak’s coarse-grained functionalism implies an implausibly liberal form of extended cognition. The point about functional interrelations allows us to avoid that conclusion without jettisoning functionalism (as Sprevak suggests we should): records in a human notebook may not enter into the right interrelations with other human psychological states to count as beliefs; nor do they enter into any interrelations with Martian psychological states. Functionalism can therefore allow that Martians have psychological states while holding that few if any of the beliefs we humans have are, as a matter of fact, extended.

May-2019 The Global Workspace Needs Metacognition

PeerReviewed

The two leading cognitive accounts of consciousness currently available con-cern global workspace (a form of working memory) and metacognition. There isrelatively little interaction between these two approaches and it has even beensuggested that the two accounts are rival and separable alternatives. Here, weargue that the successful function of a global workspace critically requires thatthe broadcast representations include a metacognitive component.

Dec-2019 Representation in Cognitive Science - Replies

PeerReviewed

In their constructive reviews, Frances Egan, Randy Gallistel and Steven Gross have raised some important problems for the account of content advanced by Nicholas Shea in Representation in Cognitive Science (2018, OUP). Here the author addresses their main challenges as follows. Egan argues that the account includes an unrecognised pragmatic element; and that it makes contents explanatorily otiose. Gallistel raises questions about homomorphism and correlational information. Gross puts the account to work to resolve the dispute about probabilistic contents in perception, but argues that a question remains about whether probabilities are found in the content or instead in the manner of representation.

Feb-2020 Knowing Ourselves Together: The Cultural Origins of Metacognition

PeerReviewed

Metacognition – the ability to represent, monitor and control ongoing cognitive processes – helps us perform many tasks, both when acting alone and when working with others. While metacognition is adaptive, and found in other animals, we should not assume that all human forms of metacognition are gene-based adaptations. Instead, some forms may have a social origin, including the discrimination, interpretation, and broadcasting of metacognitive representations. There is evidence that each of these abilities depends on cultural learning and therefore that cultural selection might shape human metacognition. The cultural origins hypothesis is a plausible and testable alternative that directs us towards a substantial new programme of research.

Mar-2020 Metacognitive Development and Conceptual Change in Children

PeerReviewed

There has been little investigation to date of the way metacognition is involved in conceptual change. It has been recognised that analytic metacognition is important to the way older children (c. 8-12 years) acquire more sophisticated scientific and mathematical concepts at school. But there has been barely any examination of the role of metacognition in earlier stages of concept acquisition, at the ages that have been the major focus of the developmental psychology of concepts. The growing evidence that even young children have a capacity for procedural metacognition raises the question of whether and how these abilities are involved in conceptual development. More specifically, are there developmental changes in metacognitive abilities that have a wholescale effect on the way children acquire new concepts and replace existing concepts? We show that there is already evidence of at least one plausible example of such a link and argue that these connections deserve to be investigated systematically.

Oct-2021 Moving Beyond Content‐Specific Computation in Artificial Neural Networks

PeerReviewed

A new wave of deep neural networks (DNNs) have performed astonishingly well on a range of real‐world tasks. A basic DNN is trained to exhibit, in parallel, a large collection of different input‐output dispositions. While this is a good model of the way humans perform some tasks automatically and without deliberative reasoning, more is needed to approach the goal of human‐like artificial intelligence. Indeed, DNN models are increasingly being supplemented to overcome the limitations inherent in dispositional‐style computation. Examining these developments, and earlier theoretical arguments, reveals a deep distinction between two fundamentally different styles of computation, defined here for the first time: content‐ specific computation and non‐content‐specific computation. Deep episodic RL networks, for example, combine content‐specific computations in a DNN with non‐content‐specific computations involving explicit memories. Human concepts are also involved in processes of both kinds. This suggests that the remarkable success of recent AI systems, and the special power of human conceptual thinking are both due, in part, to the ability to mediate between content‐specific and non‐content‐specific computations. Hybrid systems take advantage of the complementary costs and benefits of each. Combining content‐specific and non‐content‐ specific computations both has practical benefits and provides a better model of human cognitive competence.

May-2021 Representation in Cognitive Science: Author’s Reply

PeerReviewed

It is a rare privilege to have such eminent and insightful reviewers. Their kind words about the book are much appreciated – perhaps more than they realise. And I’m grateful to all three for having read the book so constructively. Each has given me several things to think about. In the space available here I will focus on the objections that seem most critical. Robert Rupert argues that I rely on an overly narrow understanding of what the cognitive sciences explain (§1). Elisabeth Camp presses me on what precisely it takes to qualify as a structural representation and raises questions about holism (§2). John Krakauer makes a fundamental objection to positing representations when they seem not to be needed to explain behaviour (§3). Rupert has also provided a useful introduction to the book, so I will jump straight in with my replies

May-2021 Concept Appraisal

PeerReviewed

This paper reports the first empirical investigation of the hypothesis that epistemic appraisals form part of the structure of concepts. To date, studies of concepts have focused on the way concepts encode properties of objects and the way those features are used in categorization and in other cognitive tasks. Philosophical considerations show the importance of also considering how a thinker assesses the epistemic value of beliefs and other cognitive resources and, in particular, concepts. We demonstrate that there are multiple, reliably judged, dimensions of epistemic appraisal of concepts. Four of these dimensions are accounted for by a common underlying factor capturing how well people believe they understand a concept. Further studies show how dimensions of concept appraisal relate to other aspects of concepts. First, they relate directly to the hierarchical organization of concepts, reflecting the increase in specificity from superordinate to basic and subordinate levels. Second, they predict inductive choices in category-based induction. Our results suggest that epistemic appraisals of concepts form a psychologically important yet previously overlooked aspect of the structure of concepts. These findings will be important in understanding why individuals sometimes abandon and replace certain concepts; why social groups do so, for example, during a “scientific revolution”; and how we can facilitate such changes when we engage in deliberate “conceptual engineering” for epistemic, social, and political purposes.

Nov-2021 Bayne, T. & Shea, N. (2020), ‘Consciousness, Concepts, and Natural Kinds’, Philosophical Topics 48(1), 65-84.

PeerReviewed

We have various everyday measures for identifying the presence of consciousness, such as the capacity for verbal report and the intentional control of behaviour. However, there are many contexts in which these measures are difficult (if not impossible) to apply, and even when they can be applied one might have doubts as to their validity in determining the presence/absence of consciousness. Everyday measures for identifying consciousness are particularly problematic when it comes to ‘challenging cases’—human infants, people with brain damage, non-human animals, and AI systems. There is a pressing need to identify measures of consciousness that can be applied to challenging cases. This paper explores one of the most promising strategies for identifying and validating such measures—the natural kind strategy. The paper is in two broad parts. Part I introduces the natural kind strategy, and contrasts it with other influential approaches in the field. Part II considers a number of objections to the approach, arguing that none succeeds.

Mar-2022 Is Concept Appraisal Modulated by Procedural or Declarative Manipulations?

PeerReviewed

A recent study has established that thinkers reliably engage in epistemic appraisals of concepts of natural categories. Here, five studies are reported which investigated the effects of different manipulations of category learning context on appraisal of the concepts learnt. It was predicted that dimensions of concept appraisal could be affected by manipulating either procedural factors (spacing of learning, perceptual fluency) or declarative factors (causal knowledge about categories). While known effects of these manipulations on metacognitive judgements such as category learning judgements and confidence at test were replicated, procedural factors had no reliable effects on the dimensions of concept appraisal. Effects of declarative manipulations on some forms of concept appraisal were observed.

Additional Publications

Research Projects & Supervisions

Research projects:

Details
Metacognition of concepts

Consultancy & Media
Available for consultancy:
Yes
Media experience:
Yes
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